by Sara Beresford, UGA — The 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the deaths of 11 oil rig workers and ultimately the largest marine oil spill in history. As this environmental disaster recedes into history, researchers from institutions across the U.S. continue to study its enduring ecological impacts.
One of these research teams will embark on a 12-day expedition in the Gulf on June 11 to investigate the impacts of oil, methane and chemical dispersants on the deep sea ecosystem-in particular deep sea corals. Deep sea corals are ecologically important and provide vital habitat for marine life, including commercially important species like shrimp, crab and grouper.
The scientists are part of the University of Georgia-led Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas to the Gulf research consortium, one of several research consortia supported by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.
"Large oil and gas injections to an ecosystem, such as that resulting from the Deepwater Horizon accident, cause both immediate and long term impacts," said project director Samantha Joye, Athletic Association Professor in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "This upcoming research expedition is a critical component of ECOGIG's long term monitoring program."
The team will send a remotely operated vehicle to depths of over 1,000 meters and use high-resolution cameras mounted to capture hundreds of still images of corals they have been monitoring yearly since shortly after the spill in 2010. These photographic data will be collected and analyzed- along with images from prior expeditions-to document the spill's impacts and improve understanding of the mechanisms that influence coral recovery and survival.
"Continued monitoring is critical," said project co-leader Chuck Fisher of Pennsylvania State University. "After seven years the 500-year-old corals are still recovering from the effects of the spill and their ultimate fate is still not known. A lot remains to be learned about these amazing and beautiful animals."
ECOGIG outreach and communication specialists aboard the ship during the "Jewels of the Gulf: Deepwater Expedition" will connect with the public in variety of ways. A live ROV camera feed will be accessible throughout the expedition at ecogig.org. Schoolchildren and summer campers across the United States will interact with scientists onboard during live question and answer sessions, and in collaboration with Mission Blue, an interactive Facebook Live video hosted by Ocean Allison will be broadcast to a worldwide audience from the Gulf of Mexico.
"The outreach component of this expedition is particularly exciting," said Joye. "Communicating with kids and the public at large about the wonders of the Gulf's deep sea ecosystems and the relevance of this research is important."
Anyone can stay up to date on the research in real time by following along via ECOGIG's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram channels. Additional content including educational videos, podcasts and a documentary short film will become available after the expedition.
Institutions participating in this expedition include University of Georgia, Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, Lehigh University and the U.S. Geological Survey. More information about ECOGIG is available at ecogig.org, and a full press kit for "Jewels of the Gulf: Deepwater Expedition" is available at bit.ly/2r0gbAs.